An Air Force photographer preparing to deploy to East Timor in September, 1999, realised things were getting serious when he was issued with live ammunition the night before leaving.

Senior imagery specialist at the 1st Joint Public Affairs Unit (1JPAU), Sergeant William Guthrie, said it was a wake-up call.

“Up until then, I’d only ever been issued with blanks,” he said.

Sergeant Guthrie, although a photographer, also worked as a darkroom technician with the Electronic Media Unit, and said his vehicle was the last one loaded into HMAS Tobruk before it sailed for Timor-Leste as part of the INTERFET (International Force East Timor) mission.

“I was one of the few members of the unit with a heavy-rigid truck licence, so I drove the Hino heavy general service truck carrying all the 1st Media Support Unit’s (1MSU) supplies and equipment, while towing a 30-foot purpose-built caravan,” he said.

“During the voyage over, I had time to join my brother, Leading Seaman Peter Guthrie, who was part of the ship’s company – he’s still serving in the Navy.

“When it became known two brothers were serving in the same warship, it caused some debate; But once I explained I was an Air Force member and only on my brother’s ship temporarily, a blind eye was turned.”

Sergeant Guthrie had the “dubious honour” of being the first off the ship when it arrived in Dili.

“What a sight to behold that was – the devastation was something I’d never seen the like of before and the acrid smoke and dust filled your nostrils and stung your eyes,” he said.

“The devastation was prolific in the extreme and it seemed, in the first month or so, that the destruction was systematic and comprehensive of anything of inherent value to the East Timorese, from infrastructure to personal property.

“It was the closest thing I’d seen that resembled a war zone up until that stage.”

His destination was the Hotel Turismo, a short distance from Tobruk.

“1MSU took over the damaged hotel’s grounds with a force protection element supplied by the 4th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (Commando), and we had 84 international press representatives under our umbrella,” he said.

“The military team members and I set about erecting the caravan’s massive surrounding tented annexe and set up the facilities to start processing the rapidly growing product coming in for dissemination.

“One of my primary jobs was to make a darkroom so I could wet process the numerous rolls of film coming in from the military photographers, so I converted the hotel’s main dining room kitchen into an improvised wet processing area."

Sergeant Guthrie said the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) role in East Timor was the catalyst that changed the ADF to the force it is today.

“Before 1999, the ADF was more of a sideshow in the world arena since the distant days of Vietnam,” he said.

“We didn’t do a great deal that the world knew about outside our borders, but Timor in 1999 changed all that and Australia can now hold its head high in the knowledge it contributes a recognisable force on the world stage.

“I’m proud to have been part of it."